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#AFtalks: Designing with Simplicity in Mind with Ryan McLeod Creator of Blackbox

AFtalks is a series of chats conducted on Twitter where we discuss building and selling apps. We’ve got a different topic/expert every week, and everyone is welcome to join the conversation.

Welcome to our #AFtalks recap!

This week we talked about app design! Award winning apps don’t create themselves. It takes time, iterations, and effort to design an experience users will love. This AFtalks focused on what it takes to create a well-designed and successful app.

Our guest this week was Ryan McLeod, Apple Design Award winner and creator of Blackbox. We asked Ryan to share his insights on this topic with the questions below. Included are his answers, as well as some of our favorite insights from the live chat:

Q1: Where did you get inspiration for your design from?

A: Blackbox tries to take design cues from the OS and devices it lives on more than anything, but I often look to motion graphic effects reels, concept UI gifs, as well as physical products—the kind of day-to-day tools and objects that provide us quick glances of information while staying out of your way (speedometers, indicator LEDs, switches, etc). I like designing things that provide information in functional novel ways while providing a bit of delight.

Q2: How did you determine the esthetic you would use for your app?

A: Blackbox’s puzzles are intended in part to make players think about their very personal devices as more than a lens to content or a plane of glass. To break that fourth wall Blackbox tries to celebrate the device as a material as much as possible; it’s more about how it reacts than how it looks. If the game were to paint a more immersive and captivating world it might defy its goal of breaking that plane. I think the aesthetic is almost rebelliously minimalistic in a way to say “this is not the game, the game is out there”.

Q3: What features and functions were most important to you in your design?

A: While some challenges require work and discrete action to solve I knew that the best puzzle satisfaction comes from hard-won “ah ha!” moments. It was important to me that challenges be designed to not spoil this moment, be mysterious enough to be satisfying to solve, while not being so obtuse that finding a solution felt like an accident. It doesn’t happen often but the worst feeling is hearing from a player who fruitlessly tried the wrong thing for hours on end because they fixated on a confusing part of a puzzle’s design. I focus a lot of time designing around these moments and the rest generally follows.

Q4: Were there any constraints you felt you might have with your design?

A: With the limitation of “don’t touch the screen” (generally) I thought I’d run out of new puzzle ideas quickly. Limited to the number of sensors on a device, how far could I really take things? Once I realized that anything with an observable/changeable state could be turned into a game the options were seemingly limitless. Now I have too many ideas and not enough time to build them all. :)

Q5: Did you test different designs before starting development?

A: Barely. My initial idea for Blackbox had a dozen or so puzzles and zero visuals (imagine just the “home grid” in the game). Every challenge was active at the same time and the lights would partially light up when the player was getting close to a solution—a true Blackbox. I quickly determined this wasn’t very fun.

As far as the game and puzzles in general, they go through a lot of iteration in my head before hitting digital or physical paper. Sometimes puzzles don’t make the cut due to technical limitations, sometimes they just aren’t as fun as I had hoped. I try not to release challenges unless I feel really good about them; sometimes they get shelved, often a breakthrough happens after several iterations, other times it never happens.

Followup: how did you go about testing and what was your criteria?
A: Beta testing has been key to Blackbox’s success. Identifying crashes and confusion is simple enough but learning to read between the lines for unspoken feedback and put “design ego” aside to know when something needs to be reworked can be difficult. I value every piece of feedback highly knowing every observation will likely affect magnitudes more people down the line. I think a lot of what makes Blackbox great isn’t what I come up with but what I’m able to fix and polish. Problems my players experience are almost never their fault, they’re mine.

Q6: How did your design affect the experience of the app?

A: A majority of the game’s design is completely invisible to most players. To maximize the satisfaction of solving its puzzles the design sinks away and only presents the bare minimum each player needs when they need it. I believe a potentially unhealthy obsession with these little, often unseen details and edge cases are the design details that set the experience of solving Blackbox’s puzzles apart.

Followup: Which came first?
A: Experience definitely shaped design. I knew what the fission and self-derived satisfaction of solving great puzzles felt like; I knew the frustration of fruitlessly trying the wrong solutions without guidance; I knew the little details and nuance that made for my favorite, most memorable user experiences. I designed backwards from those feelings; I don’t really know how many other forms the design could have taken from there.

Check out the rest of the insights we heard today on the #AFtalks hashtag!

A huge thanks to Ryan and to all those that were part of today’s discussion! Join us for our weekly Twitter chat every Tuesday at 1pm ET (and bring your friends!). See you all next week where #AFtalks about Mobile Games.